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The Sunday Times (UK)
December 2, 2001
How Tori Amos went weirdly normal
Marriage and motherhood have mellowed Tori Amos, the queen of weird, but can her angst-ridden fans cope with her being happy, asks SOPHIA COUDENHOVE
Strange little girl
A really terrible thing has happened to the tortured pop star Tori Amos. The American heroine of an angst-ridden generation, whose music has frequently been centred on her own traumatic experiences -- miscarriage, rape, miserable relationships -- has found happiness.
Worse, it's the most suburban concept of fulfilment possible. Now 38, she has got married (to a British sound engineer) and had a baby; she has even bought that most bourgeois symbol of settled family life -- a cottage in Cornwall. And even Amos can see that this might be a problem for her fans."I'm not the sort of person who gets played at parties or weddings," she says, over breakfast at New York's Trump Hotel. "I mean, you know, you mention my name and you get an eye roll, until, of course, you're jumping off a bridge..."
As the chronicler of misunderstood youth, Amos had it made. She has sold more than 10m albums, and her fans on both sides of the Atlantic are famous for their obsessive devotion. Teenage girls bring presents along to her concerts and allegedly spend the entire time there in tears.
"She's like a modern-day Buddha, passing on truths to people and recognising parts of you that you don't realise," says Maria Carullo, 22, who has followed Amos from concert to concert since her father died two years ago, and Amos's music became her greatest source of comfort. Carullo's friend Jason Hinson has taken eight weeks off work to follow Amos's world tour, and supports himself by selling a fanzine about "Toriphoria".
"Tori is more important to me than anything else in my life, except my work," says another fan. His work, mind you, is implanting bits of Teflon under people's skin to make them look like extraterrestrials. A huge tattoo of Amos adorns his left calf. Even her friends sound pretty weird. When she was pregnant, her male friends apparently asked her what it was like to be a "host organism". So perhaps, in comparison, Amos is pretty normal, despite reportedly spending her childhood having fantasies about Jesus and dreaming about murdering her grandmother with a butter knife.
So, how will she connect with her fans now? "I don't know about that one," Amos says frankly. "It's hard. A lot of people, as you know, lose steam when they're not tortured any more. Let's face it, when everything is in turmoil, as a writer you don't have to search far for inspiration; you don't have to put on your knapsack and go hunting for material. But it's all of the same sort, and it can be fun for a while, and then it isn't any more." Having a baby was, she says, "my password for me to be able to break from this locked place; to take care of this woman because she was carrying a life".
Now in the middle of a world tour, when you see Amos live, at first it seems as though nothing has changed. She opens with a song from her latest album, Strange Little Girls (covers of songs written by men about women, retold from a female perspective) ã Eminem's 97 Bonnie and Clyde. It's a rap that tells the story of a man who has killed his wife, and drives with his small daughter to dispose of the body. Amos sings it in a haunting voice, from the perspective of the dead wife in the boot of the car. There's no doubt that her status as a mother adds poignancy and meaning to the song; by the end, the audience is barely breathing.
Although she is tiny, Amos looks tall, almost lanky, onstage. She lifts her whole body off the piano seat, then thrusts it back down. Serious rocks sparkle on her fingers as she launches into Icicle, an early song about "getting off, getting off while they're all downstairs singing prayers". (Amos's father was a strict Methodist minister in North Carolina, and the church's repression of sexuality is one of her favourite themes. Her weirdness she puts down to her Cherokee grandfather, who tried to teach her how to shape-shift as a child.)
But then she raises her hand in a little wave, and with a cutesy grin, utters the words: "New mom!" You expect a chorus of boos and a hail of piercings to rain down onto the stage. Rather disappointingly, the audience seems delighted, and there is more applause as she coos: "I find that husbands are very good at changing diapers." Have the fans gone soft? Or are they just enjoying the weirdness of seeing Tori Amos onstage in New York talking about nappies?
It gets weirder when, later on in her set, she produces a white mug that she clutches to her chest, Tony Blair-style. That's just before she sings Me and a Gun, her most shocking song, where, in chilling a cappella, she tells the true story of what it is like to be raped at gunpoint by a fan. She's got the tea, now all she needs is the sympathy. It's all rather hard to put together.
In person, Amos is just as confusing. She's quite happy to talk about the rape, and about miscarrying before giving birth to her daughter, Natashya Lorien (named after Lothlorien, the kingdom of the elves in Lord of the Rings), now almost 15 months old. But ask her something quite innocuous, such as why her fans are so devoted, and she coyly deflects the question.
Arriving, slightly flustered, a few minutes late for breakfast, she blames Natashya, who is accompanying her on this leg of the tour, and who, this morning, refused to get dressed. "She's following in the steps of one of the crew, who's a nudist," she says, sounding like any other proud new mother as she boasts of her daughter's strong communication skills.
Even when she's not talking about Natashya, she has babies on the brain. She describes the male writers of the songs she covers on Strange Little Girls as the "mothers" of their tunes. "In a time when a lot of men were taking from women, it made me want to take their seed and plant it here in the woman's voice, and consummate it there..."
Of course, you could argue that doing covers of other people's hits was a convenient way to avoid working out what sort of songs a cheerful Amos would write. It's an allegation that she vigorously denies. "If you think about it, it's a very scary move, because it could end a career."
So far, though, the gamble seems to be paying off. Strange Little Girls has had ecstatic reviews, and Amos's British tour, which starts next week, is already sold out. But how her fans over here will react to a Tori Amos with a big smile on her face and a steaming mug of tea in her hand remains to be seen.
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